Open House exposes rare London

London Open House is a much anticipated annual opportunity for the nosey, the obsessive and the interested to experience good quality buildings.

Every year I make notes to self that I will book a look at the Foreign Office or snoop round a City bank vault, but every year I leave it too late. This year I was too late for a place on a tour of the New River Head Oak Room and missed the last entry to Bevis Marks synagogue by minutes. Following this near miss, I located the nearest open building – the pre-Great Fire St. Helen’s Bishopsgate where I was saved by a kindly tour guide conducting a party of pensioners on a tour of City churches from the earnest conservative evangelical Christians proselytising within.

Her unsteady new disciples and I were offered glimpses and insights into Wren’s St. Peter upon Cornhill, St. Michael Cornhill, St. Clement Eastcheap, St. Edmund King and Martyr and finally Hawksmoor’s St. Mary Woolnoth – not bad for an afternoon.

But I digress, the morning had been better: I made a trip to Stoneleigh Terrace, a fine example of modernist public housing demonstrating an uncompromising and unashamedly Utopian vision of how to live in a city. The estate – Highgate New Town, now more prosaically called the Whittington Estate, is one of the last flowerings of architectural post-war optimism in London having been completed only in 1979.

Stoneleigh Terrace seen from Raydon Road:

Here there was a civilised approach to high density living with a clear masterplan underpinning the scheme and a visionary architect at the helm (Peter Tábori, a student of Ernő Goldfinger). Thought has been given to all aspects of the environment including a generous, now old-fashioned approach to the size of private and public spaces. Each of the 273 homes has a south-facing aspect and at least one private terrace.

The public planting is also noteworthy, in the 32 years since its completion the estate has developed a canopy of mature trees, mostly the ‘Raywood’ cultivar of the Caucasian Ash (Fraxinus angustifolia subsp. oxycarpa) which seems to be a favourite of Camden council’s horticultural department, and some fine specimens of Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa). The trees soften the hard modernist edges of the architecture and lend it a sense of maturity and dignity.

Rayworth Ash (Fraxinus oxycarpa ‘Raywood’) Highgate New Town
The largest open space in the Whittington Estate is planted with fine examples of the Rayworth Ash cultivar (Fraxinus angustifolia subsp. oxycarpa), also known as the Claret Ash. This picture was taken on 18th September and the first signs of fine autumn colour are showing

Highgate New Town or the Whittington Estate is a development built on principals of integrity over profit and would I suspect be an environment the architects themselves would want to inhabit.

Further reading:
Open House 2011
Highgate New Town on the Modern Architecture London website
Whittington Estate on London Gardens Online
My Open House 2011 Flickr stream

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